Allen Funt Brought Science to Television... Candidly

On its surface, the classic tv show Candid Camera seemed like anything but a science education series.  It was about surprises, catching ordinary people off-guard.  At times it was even criticized as "mean-spirited," hardly like something you would expect to see on the Discovery Channel or PBS.  However, unlike many popular programs on those and other channels devoted to science, Candid Camera showed that science was at once both the process and its products.  Allen Funt and his followers were pranksters, but they also happened to bring the social sciences to the masses without ever telling us just what it was they were up to.  That's almost a prank unto itself.  But I digress.  Let's talk instead about science and how this one show managed to demonstrate how it was done.

Science is essentially a game of finding ways to ask questions of reality, and in order to do that, you have to play by a certain set of rules.  First of all, science is about observation.  You don't sit around and invent or compose things from scratch.  Sure, that's fun, but you need to work with reality.  You need to go out and look at some facet of the world.  Candid Camera loved to look at human nature, and we loved to look at Candid Camera because they showed it from every angle.  In order to capture their observations, they had (as the very name of the show attests) cameras hidden everywhere.  They pulled back for wide shots to establish what was going to happen and always (always!) went in tight to capture the human reactions.  Those signals are being beamed out into space, and we maybe should be concerned just how much alien civilizations are learning about us right now.

That's because the recipe for each and every trick was laid out for the audience.  Candid Camera put it all right out there.  After all, if you're doing good science, you don't obfuscate what's going on.  You explain just how you got the results you got.  Right before every prank on Candid Camera, Allen Funt (or his son Peter who succeeded him) explained the methodology so that viewers knew just who in the scene was going to be the victim of a prank, who was in on the joke, just which mirrors were one-way, and that the man in to gorilla suit would come out of the trap door in exactly this spot.  There was nothing to puzzle out about their approach as you watched it.  You merely enjoyed the reactions of the victims and marveled at the ingenuity of the writers who came up with things we all wish we had pulled on our roommates in college.

Of course, in any science it is important that findings are replicated.  Not merely to confirm the validity of the effect, this requirement also gives an idea of the range of variance in the variables measured.  We all know that humans are a diverse group of animals, so it is inevitable that this variance will turn up in subsequent trials with different subjects.  And that's the fun of it.  Candid Camera almost never played a prank just once.  They showed the reactions of one victim after another to the same contrived scenario.

And, yes, a critic could make the argument that it's cheaper to produce tv by reusing the same set-up over and over, but it was also science at its best.  Specifically, the show's producers kept the conditions about as controlled as they could be while maintaining a naturalistic environment.  While I'm sure there must have been some temptation to improvise new variations on the original premise once it had been tried in the field, the producers always seemed to adhere to the original protocol through all the trials.

Even today, footage and examples collected for Candid Camera are used in psychology classrooms.  Still, it remains an underrated program for what it did: It showed experiments in progress, not merely demonstrations (no matter how dramatic) after the fact.  It is ironically then that the current so-called "reality tv" phenomenon is not only an oxymoron, it is a lie.  "Reality" shows today carefully select their participants rather than leaving their participation to chance, and then the editors of these shows draw perhaps 40 minutes from several weeks of tape with the same limited population of subjects, thereby removing observations from their context... typically to (false) dramatic effect.  Shows like The Bachelor and Survivor and the rest make one pass and change the rules at every turn.  That's manipulative, but not in a very productive way.  I'm sure "reality" shows reveal something about human nature, but they speak volumes more about their producers and the viewing public they fail to represent than they do about the participants therein.  Thankfully, we'll always have the work Candid Camera did as an example of how to do good science on tv.  Candid Camera was, after all, candid with the audience, not just about their nature, but about ours as well.

Some examples of Candid Camera at its best.

Copyright 2007, 2008 Alexplorer.
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